You are out and about with your child running errands when, all of a sudden, he goes from happy and calm to full-on hell-raiser. The uncontrolled, horrific outburst surely causes a scene. With all eyes on you and your little one, you probably turn red and lower your head out of embarrassment. What's left to do but leave the establishment, right?
Whether you're a first-time mom, mother of a brood, or a passerby who has seen children act out in this way, what you've encountered is known as a "super tantrum." What is the cause, and what should you do?
What Is a Super Tantrum?
A super tantrum is more than just throwing a fit; it is more emotionally involved. Unlike us adults who have had decades to reel our emotions in and use our brains to deal with stressors so that they do not have a huge impact on our emotional well-being, children are still learning to cope with their emotions.
A super tantrum can be a response to a situation your child cannot handle, such as making his desires known to parents or not getting the thing(s) he wants and feels he is entitled to. Since, in either of these situations, he cannot communicate or simply wrap his mind around why he cannot have what he wants, his extreme emotions take over and his meltdown mode is displayed with crying, kicking, or punching. The goal is to release those pent up emotions—imagine a soda bottle that's been shaken profusely; once the top is open, the content spill out quickly and with force—and/or get what he desires.
What Sparks Super Tantrums?
Your job as a parent is to unearth super tantrum triggers by doing a “functional assessment.” This means checking exactly what happens just before, during and after the behavior.
Keep an eye out for patterns of behavior. Check whether your child’s super-tantrums occur in certain situations. An issue could reveal itself such as ADHD, social anxiety, or a learning disorder.
Check whether your child is struggling with self-control and transitions. Maybe he doesn’t like going from one activity to another too quickly.
Perhaps your child thinks he needs something that is being withheld—such as a video game or a toy—and then is overtaken by frustration or a feeling of unfairness. Anger and/or anxiety are the top emotions that move children into meltdown mode.
“A majority of kids who have frequent meltdowns do it in very predictable, circumscribed situations: when it’s homework time, bedtime, time to stop playing,” stated Clinical Psychologist Dr. Vasco Lopes in a recent report to the nonprofit Child Mind Institute. “The trigger is usually being asked to do something that’s aversive to them or to stop doing something that is fun for them.”
What's Happening Beneath the Meltdowns?
Meltdowns do not occur for no reason; there is always something behind them. While many super tantrums will be over something trivial, such as not getting a toy or having your undivided attention, there are times when they can be attributed to the following:
ADHD: Over 75 percent of children with extreme outbursts also fit the characteristics of ADHD, according to a study by Fordham University. (This does not mean necessarily that those children in the study were diagnosed with ADHD.)
Anxiety: Maybe the child does not have an anxiety disorder diagnosis, but he may still over-react to stressful situations.
Learning issues: If your child has issues with acting out in school, he may have a learning disorder that has not yet been diagnosed.
Depression: Irritability and depression also show up in some kids who exhibit severe temper tantrums.
Autism: Those with autism spectrum disorder also tend to have meltdowns. These kids depend on a regular routine for comfort, so any unexpected change can set off a super tantrum.
Goals of Doing Your Behavioral Detective Work
As a parent, you must be a detective and investigate what is going on with your child—and who better since you know him best? But during your inspection, the following goals should be in mind:
To improve – Get feedback to improve your child’s behavior.
To inform – The behavior lets you (the mommy) and doctors/psychologists know the impact of your child’s development and growth.
To support - If your child has a meltdown related to doing a certain task (such as a chore), then try to restructure the activity to make it more acceptable for the child (e.g. give him more breaks, help him by organizing the work and breaking it into smaller tasks)
To meet developmental expectations – Are expectations appropriate for your child’s age and development stage? Can you encourage your child toward maturing? Can you modify the environment?
Responding to/Resolving Super Tantrums
When you deal with the identified behaviors in a consistent way, you can reduce the chances of your child having a super tantrum in the future. These techniques include:
Collaborative/proactive solutions — Parents can hold back on the inclination to “give in” to their child and can also restrain from punishing the child. Instead, let the child finish his tantrum. Find more details about the (non-punitive) approach in The Explosive Child by Dr. Ross Greene.
Withdrawal of parental attention — If the super tantrum is not dangerous, it behooves the parent to ignore the behavior and withdraw any attention.
Positive reinforcement of behavior you want to encourage — For example, if your child tries to calm down and complies with your request, then a compromise is possible. You teach skills that will help decrease the non-compliant behavior.
You really don’t want to try to “reason” with a child who is having an extreme tantrum. He basically is not available to you when in that state of mind. Once your child is calmer, you can guide him in working through problems by using techniques such as:
Breaking down behaviors (that you want to see) step by step, especially for children who have deficits in this type of thinking.
Modeling calm behavior yourself and showing your child how to take a “time out” until he can calm down.
Creating a “toolkit” for self-soothing, including practical ways your child can calm down (e.g. breathing slowly, counting to five, focusing on an object or positive thought).
The ultimate goal with many children who experience super tantrums is to guide them toward unlearning this behavior. Instead, model the behavior you’d like to see—such as compromising and listening to mommy’s expectations… and the child could get a reward in exchange!